Is teaching’s caterpillar about to find its wings?

Cocooned away in our homes, the teaching profession is undergoing a metamorphosis  

Emma Turner

Very Hungry Caterpillar

Many of us, at the moment, may be living a little like Eric Carle’s very hungry caterpillar – our enforced social distancing meaning that we have become fixated not on the day-to-day chaos of the juggle of work and home, but developing a deep and meaningful relationship with our fridges and cupboards.

Others of us will be bingeing and gorging in different ways, reading the unread books, writing the unwritten manuscript, with others of us attempting to wedge a full-time working schedule into a now full-time caring or parenting schedule and all without the external support of our wider networks of friends, family and loved ones. But, as we chomp our way through the heady buffet of ennui, change and chaos which comes at us each day, we could do well to look at the phase we’re actually in.

While cocooned in our homes, in a quiet chrysalis of both seismic and subtle changes, we should recognise the huge educational metamorphosis going on around us. Everything we once were, everything we set store by, every aspect of our practice which our structures hinged upon is undergoing a huge metamorphosis.

We could never have envisaged just a few short weeks ago that exams would be cancelled, schools would close their doors to pupils, parents would become not only their child’s first educators but their sole face-to-face educational interactions. We could not have envisaged our youngest learners not being surrounded by playmates or our neatly developed curriculums and schemes of work being abandoned or hastily reconfigured into activities for children to complete in their own homes without rules about uniforms and with no one monitoring how they walked down a corridor.

Having our children work alone and without the specialist support of learning support workers or speech and language therapists or educational psychologists is something we simply could not have fathomed and the cancellation of those rites of passage such as transition days, proms, end-of-term productions and sports days will, for some, forever be gaps in their experiential calendars; put so succinctly by the daughter of a friend who was due to sit her GCSEs this summer, “This was meant to be the best summer of my life,” and my own 3-year-old, “Mummy, I miss everything I used to do.”

Schools are an anchor and refuge

During the last few weeks of school closures, school staff at all levels have proven that schools really are at the heart of communities and the care and dedication with which the profession serves those communities is awe inspiring. A recognition that our schools and systems provide more than just an academic education but an anchor, a refuge, a support, a true family of professionals who are committed to ensuring the wellbeing and safety of children, as well as fostering academic development and achievement. Teachers are the frontline service to so many aspects of the success, health and wellbeing of the communities they serve.

While we scramble to assemble supportive home learning experiences for our pupils and keep our buildings open to support the children of the country’s key workers, we have the opportunity to use this time to reflect on how things will not and should not ever be the same.

For so long, “because we’ve always done it this way” has been a resistant and impenetrable wall which has prevented so much innovative thinking and blocked the path of new ways of working. If these last few weeks have taught us anything it is that anything is possible and there is no “normal” which can’t be flipped on its head and looked at in a different way.

The complete derailing of exams, assessment and curriculum delivery gives us the opportunity and luxury of seizing the moment and deciding that doing what we’ve always done in the way we’ve always done it might not be the most effective way of moving forward into post-coronavirus schooling. Just in the same way that a caterpillar emerges from a chrysalis metamorphosed and can never return to being a caterpillar, so too should we look to use this time of quiet and relative developmental inertia to plan for those different viewpoints.

Our caterpillars never get the opportunity to see things from the vantage point of a butterfly, so intent are they on consuming enough food and becoming full enough to pass into the next phase of development. Their viewpoints are limited by their need to hide from potential predators and they are often hunkered down, hidden in the day-to-day business of simply getting through enough food. For many teachers and leaders, their pre-coronavirus lives may have been characterised by similar fears of external accountability swooping in to consume them or being overwhelmed by the amount of stuff needing to be done.

Forever changes

Now that we are in a period of uncertainty and strange calm and relative quiet, we can be safe in the knowledge that when we emerge from this, as a profession we will be forever changed. We have the potential to no longer be the caterpillars, sluggish and heavy with the weight of work, but potential butterflies able to see things from a new sky high vantage point and to have new skills, new outlooks and new knowledge that nothing is impossible, nothing is immune to change or development and things don’t have to be done in the way they have always been done.

So while we reflect in our cocoons at home and ruminate on all the changes we have seen in the last few short weeks, let’s make a pact together, to metamorphose and never revert to a caterpillar mentality. Yes, the new world we’ll emerge to will be different and potentially scary with many unknowns but we will have all learned so much about our profession, our own abilities and what is really actually important to us, our schools and our communities that we should recognise just what a beautiful opportunity this is.

And as we all emerge, let’s remember to congratulate our colleagues on a job well done during this period, as it is a well-known fact that butterflies cannot see how beautiful their own wings are.

Emma Turner is the research and CPD lead for Discovery Schools Academy Trust in Leicestershire. She tweets @Emma_Turner75 

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